The Culture of Higher Education Part II

The Culture of Higher Education Part II


The culture of higher education continues
to be an important consideration as we begin to explore more deeply the purpose of higher
education. This presentation and lecture will expand our thinking on culture from the first
lecture and will establish a deeper understanding of the cultural contexts of higher education.
As a reminder, we are using Edgar Schein’s definition of organizational culture as a
system of shared backgrounds, norms, values, or beliefs among members of a group. Through our understanding of academic governance,
we come to realize organizational cultures exist in a context. While it is sometimes
easy to think about an organization existing as one culture, a more accurate picture is
to view the organization as existing within the context of an expansive macro-culture,
an assortment of subcultures, and as functional micro-cultures. While this terminology is
not part of our daily language, it is important as we begin to understand more about how higher
education institutions are cultural organizations and how change evolves within the academy. Higher education does not exist in a vacuum
where the only cultural influences are those within or across institutional boundaries.
Higher education exists within the macro-cultural environment of a national system of education
that includes not only post-secondary institutions, but also primary and secondary institutions.
By some accounts, most people complete a secondary degree and nearly one-third of young adults
earn a post-secondary degree. In the United States, our society has created a model where
everyone is encouraged, if not expected, to attend college. Unfortunately, the trend in
higher education is lower completion rates and increased remediation leading to longer
enrollments and more time to degree completion. These trends suggest that too many high school
students are underprepared when they enter the halls of higher education. Education and economic growth are fascinatingly
linked. This link is both obvious and divisive. Obvious in that each of us can easily understand
the impact education has had on our lives and the lives of others. Every day we rely
on education when we read the newspaper, balance our checkbook, or send an e-mail. It is divisive
because the link is hard to understand and often difficult to prove. However, over time,
living standards have increased as education levels have improved. It is commonly believed
that those with a baccalaureate degree earn more over a lifetime than those without. A
person with a post-secondary degree may earn up to 50% more than someone who does not complete
college. While earning potential and economics are not the only important factors, both are
certainly a component of the macro context in which education exists. Higher education in the United States is adopting
a more global position than in previous years as institutions are assuming a greater role
in a changing and challenging world. The contemporary social life of students is one of interconnectedness
and disappearing boundaries leading to an almost seamless acceptance of globalization
within higher education. Students, and others, connect through a multitude of platforms designed
to provide social networking, communication, and interaction. The challenge for education
is to continue to find creative ways to harness these social media effectively extending the
classroom and removing barriers to learning and access. While online learning has continued
to expand, with City University being one of the leaders, its evolution must include
alternative delivery models that take advantage of the wealth of information that can be found
online, both informally through search engines or formally through the ever-increasing free
classes being offered by the likes of Stanford, Harvard, Duke, and other universities. A thorough discussion of the macro-culture
of higher education cannot be had without including quality and accountability. The
U. S. Department of Education has made it a priority to improve the quality of higher
education. A popular term came into existence in light of these reform efforts: No college
student left behind. These reform efforts are based on the expectations that colleges
will show some evidence that students are learning and that this learning directly correlates
with gainful employment. As college tuitions continue to rise, consumers are demanding
to know how the money is being spent on campus to ensure a quality education. Accrediting
bodies, in an effort to maintain control of the peer evaluation process, have all adopted
an expectation of learning outcomes for accredited institutions. However, a larger picture of
quality comes to play in the differences between those institutions holding regional accreditation
versus national accreditation. Regionally accredited institutions are generally non-profit,
academically-oriented institutions, like City University, whereas nationally accredited
institutions are predominately for-profit and career-oriented. While some in higher education think the sector
is outside the fray of competition, the evidence is to the contrary. The marketplace of higher
education is filled with “top college” rankings, “best college” lists, and “Americas
best universities” all seeking to lure the consumer into the competitive underbelly of
higher education. While this initial assessment appears to be a little harsh, it is not too
far off the mark. Competition is prevalent within tertiary education with institutions
vying for a spot on these lists. However, these market-like mechanisms at play in higher
education have created a sort of check-and-balance whereby colleges are accountable to each other
as well as to the public. Much of what we think about as culture in
higher education exists in the form of the sub-cultures that are present within our institutions.
Edgar Schein discusses subcultures as being reflective of the functional units, the hierarchical
levels, and the geographic locations of the organization. For higher education, the functional
units are the various academic disciplines and professional trades on the campus. The
hierarchical levels are the various roles individuals hold on campus such as administration,
faculty, staff, student and other roles. Finally, the geographic locations may include branch
campuses, regional campuses, or international divisions of the college or university. The sub-culture of faculty is one of the cultures
most associated with higher education. Taking a closer look, faculty are most often viewed
in terms of their academic discipline. This word, discipline, has at its root the moral
concept of regulating behaviors or ways of thinking. Expanding this to higher education,
it becomes a technical term for the organization of learning and the systematic production
of new knowledge within a specific field of practice, often operating within the silos
of that discipline. Higher education institutions are often organized around clusters of faculty
in similar disciplines such as arts and sciences, health sciences, business, law, and other
typical groupings. Decisions are made in regards to faculty promotion and the expenditure of
resources within these clusters making the academic disciplines the base of power for
much of what happens on campus. Administrative staff operate in similar sub-cultures
as faculty, but do not hold the same status in most institutions. Most often segmented
by a specific skill versus a discipline, administrative staff broadly includes administrators, accountants,
maintenance, support, coaches, and other non-teaching employees who have the primary function of
managing the operations of the institution. While much of the daily work of higher education
rests with the administrative staff, much of the power still lies with the faculty.
This can create a level of culture conflict as change occurs on campus. The sub-cultures that exist within the hierarchical
levels are similar across all organizational types, including higher education. Hierarchy
describes a framework based on social rank, power, and authority. In the culture of higher
education, hierarchy begins with students who come to the campus with little or no power
and authority, but gradually gain both as they progress through the levels. Likewise,
it is the faculty and administrative staff who hold the power and authority on campus,
but eventually cede some of this power as students gain social maturity. For example,
freshmen students know very little about the inner-workings of the university and thus
have little to contribute to the decision making that occurs on campus. However, seniors,
and even more so, graduate students often have learned a great deal about the management
of the college and can offer much to the administrative staff and faculty. Finally, while not common in higher education,
sub-cultures can exist across branch campuses, regional campuses, and especially at international
campuses. Many community colleges have multiple campuses across various regions of their geographic
area. Many of the branch campuses offer different courses or specific degree programs leading
to sub-cultural differences based primarily on location and academic discipline. Likewise,
large state systems often have regional campuses throughout the state that take on the various
culture of the region in which it exists. Finally, there is an emergence of higher education
institutions creating international campuses or partnerships that, like their manufacturing
and business counterparts, find the cultural differences between the home and international
campus to be significant. The micro-cultures in higher education are
those groups that share common tasks and histories. While this appears similar to the academic
disciplines on campus, it is better thought of as the specific research interests within
these disciplines. For example, within the academic discipline of history may exist the
micro-cultures of early American History, world history, or ancient history. Edgar Schein
uses the example of a football team as a micro-culture and this can certainly be expanded to include
other sports teams or student organizations. While holding very little power on campus
as individual cultures, collectively within the ranks of the institution, micro-cultures
can be very influential – think Penn State football.

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